For many years during the Cold War, Finland wished to be part of the EU and to be seen as a truly Western country, but the difficult situation of having the Soviet Union next door prevented its accession to the Union until a referendum in 1994. Now, the Nordic country flourishes inside the EU where it plays the role of an arbitrator, Finnish experts say.
20 years ago, 56.9% of Finnish citizens voted in favour of the country becoming an EU member state and it effectively joined on 1 January 1995.
While the Finns had wanted to be be put at the centre of Western politics and European institutions, this had been unthinkable due to the Cold War and Finland's relationship with the Soviet Union, including its close economic ties.
Teija Tiilikainen, director for the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, said that the Cold War was a very negative and difficult situation for the small country of around 5.5 million people, where it was caught between East and West and had to walk on tip toes so as to not upset its giant Soviet neighbour to the East.
When the iron curtain fell, Finland seized the opportunity for comprehensive change.
"Finland perceived itself as a small player and therefore we wanted to be part of something bigger. That’s why the membership, when it turned out to be possible, was something that a major part of the country wanted," Tiilikainen said.
Finland's minister for European affairs and foreign trade, Alexander Stubb, stresses that Sweden, which applied for EU membership at the same time, had an impact on Helsinki's decision.
“Actually, the Swedes took us by surprise when then-prime minister Ingvar Carlsson announced the Swedish application [for] membership. Usually, we consulted each other on these types of issues, but in this particular case, for one reason or another, Sweden didn’t do that,” Stubb told EURACTIV in an interview.
He added that in the end, Finnish EU membership had not had an impact on the country’s relationship with Russia.
Top 3 country
Finland's European affairs minister emphasised that his country had benefitted tremendously from being an EU member state, not least economically, and was punching above its weight.
A combination of membership of the EU and a deep recession in the early 1990s, helped the Finnish economy to grow. Stubb said Finland went from being a ‘Top 30’ country to a ‘Top 3’ country over the span of 25 years in key areas such as education, innovation and competitiveness.
As well as the positive development of the Finnish economy, Tiilikainen said that Finland now had a stronger voice internationally.
Finland is a visible EU member, Teiilikainen said, and played the typical role of a small member, 'the arbitrator', which is keen on having joint solutions.
"The EU is in need of these kinds of arbitrators and mediators that are constructive with respect to the common solutions. Here I think a country such as Finland is valued and becomes much more visible because they are so essential for the system. Without those countries that are more conciliatory, the EU would not have a common policy in many fields," the director said.
The sudden Eurosceptisism
Like other EU countries in recent years, Finland has witnessed rising Eurosceptisism following the eurozone crisis. Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi said that the crisis had had a bigger and longer lasting impact on the Finnish economy than on the eurozone as a whole.
Suddenly, the protest party the True Finns, now known as 'The Finns', suddenly gained 19.1% of the votes In the Finnish parliamentary elections in 2011.
According to Tiilikainen, a party with a real Eurosceptic agenda did not exist in Finland until then and that the country's Eurosceptics had been ideologically fragmented. The other parties in the Finnish parliament were caught by surprise and reacted by appearing less pro-European, at least rhetorically.
"They became a bit more cautious. Now I think there’s not much left of that," the international affairs expert said.
Hassi stressed that today the True Finn's policy agenda was "rather unclear" as the party did not want Finland out of the euro or the EU.
"They say EU takes the money from the poor and pours it to the rich – but in the European Parliament votes they have not, at least not consistently, supported tighter rules for the financial sector," Hassi said.
"They are opposing supporting the problem countries – but what they would do if they really had to take responsibility of the policy, is completely unclear," the MEP continued.
Tillikainen explained that euroscepticism within the eurozone has at least two common features; first of all the notion that EU politicians did not do enough to prevent the eurozone crisis; secondly, that in both the countries that were forced to support other countries, and in the countries which received support, citizens were unhappy with the way decisions were taken, citing lack of democracy in the processes.
While Finland opposed a second bailout to Greece, unless the country gained more favourable loan terms, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen said in October that his country would be ready to support a third bailout for Greece.
Rules to follow
In the future, the EU can expect that Finland will continue to stress the important role of norms and rules, the Finnish experts said. Tiilikainen said that for the Finns it's important that what has been agreed, is something which everybody respects. Here, Finland tries to be a good example.
Stubb added that Finland believed in strong institutions and in a rule-based EU.
"So ‘you shouldn’t blame the machine if you haven’t read the instructions’, as one could put it. It’s very important that we stick to the rules and regulations that we have set amongst ourselves inside the EU," he stated.
While it has been apparent that the key EU policy areas for Finland over the past few years have been the European economy, the internal market, especially the digital internal market, and trade, Tiilikainen said that many were unaware of how important the EU's External Action Service was for the Finns.
"We are a small country in the North and the surroundings are quite turbulent. There’s the Arctic agenda on the rise, Russia which is very unpredictable, there are changes in the US policies with a direction from Europe towards Asia Pacific … Finland is in a challenging situation. Finland would like the EU to take firm responsibility for security and have a common security policy," she said.
20 years ago in 1994, four European countries; Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden had referendums on EU membership. EURACTIV is marking the anniversary this year with a series of feature articles focusing on these four countries' relationship with the EU.